By Rebecca Skilton
Pakenham mother Julie Smith is no stranger to the heartbreak induced by the life-changing effects of cancer.
However, despite her tragic experiences with the disease, the mother-of-four will continue to be a shining light at this year’s Cardinia Relay for Life, leading the way for her relay team, Best Foot Forward.
“I’ve got a pretty painful story,” 48-year-old Julie admitted. “I’ve lost probably about 20 people that I’ve known in my life (to cancer)…but what I’ve been through, it’s made me a stronger person.”
An integration teacher at Berwick’s Kambrya College, Julie is currently preparing to take part in her 10th relay for life, captaining her team of relatives and friends. However, while the mother-of-four looks forward to the Relay for Life each year, it’s an emotional reminder of all she has lost to a disease that has continuously changed her life.
“Back in 1991, we lost my mum,” Julie explained. “She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 46…she had a mastectomy and spent 10 years in and out of hospital…she died at 56.”
“We only knew Mum as a really tired and sick person for that stage of her life,” said Julie, who admitted cancer took a toll on her mother. “(When she had the mastectomy) she kept crying about it…she felt like it had taken half her womanhood away. We kept on telling her, it’s just a boob, it’s just a boob. Even my dad would say I don’t care, you can take them both if it means you live longer.”
While Julie’s mother, Joy, eventually beat breast cancer, it would prove to only be the beginning of her troubles, a hospital accident uncovering yet another sickness.
“(Mum) was in hospital, and the nurse got her out of her bed to make it, and she collapsed and broke her thigh in a couple of places,” Julie said. “So then (the doctors) gave her another scan and found her body was riddled with cancer through the bones.”
“She fought (breast cancer) and she went into remission for a while, and we were really positive about it. There was about four years of no treatment then she had the surgery (for her thigh) and bang, our whole life was shattered.”
However, while the hardest part for Julie was the fact her mother never got to meet any of Julie’s four children, her experience with the life-changing disease was yet to continue.
“I had my first child in 1997,” Julie said. “In 1998, my older brother, (Chris) contracted cancer… he lived for a year (before he passed away)…he was 40.”
“He’d just found the love if his life when he got diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” Julie explained. “(He) loved the fact I’d just become a mum.”
After the loss of her brother, Julie went on to have another three children. However, in 2007, her life was set to be rocked once again, as her best friend Julie Vugs, was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. Her battle was short, but Julie maintains that her best friend kept a smile on her face until the very end.
“That was the final one that got me into relaying,” Julie said. “I’d heard about (The Relay for Life), and I said, hang on…I’ve been through cancer experiences, I’ve been a carer, and I thought; I want to do this, I want to make a difference.”
Partnered with her four children, Tilly, Sheri, Darcy and Patrick, Julie followed through with her plan, beginning a team at the Berwick Relay for Life.
“We stayed there for about five years,” Julie said. “Then in 2012, my friend’s father was diagnosed with skin cancer, so we changed from the Berwick relay to the Werribee one. We also continued to help out at the Berwick and Cranbourne (relays).”
For Julie, her partner Gary, and her children, this will be the family’s third Cardinia Relay for Life, having started up their own family team, Best Foot Forward.
“(When we were naming ourselves), we wanted something quirky,” explained Julie, whose team now consists of around 22 family members, friends and work colleagues. “BFF (stands for) best friends forever, because my friend had died, and best foot forward just because it’s one foot in front of the other on the track.”
The track that Julie and Best Foot Forward will be walking is based at Toomuc Reserve Pakenham, with the relay beginning at 5.45pm Friday 24 February, carrying through until noon the following day. The concept behind the relay is simple, with all teams having to have a team member either walking or running around the track with their team batten in hand.
“I usually do at least 10 (hours of walking),” Julie said. “I do the night shifts … so my husband, Gary and I are usually up between midnight and five in the morning and then someone else can come and relieve us.”
“My first (relay) that I did, I walked 75 kilometres. That was for my best friend. I wanted to do 100 laps, but I didn’t get there. I was in first aid with a big blister.”
Regardless of whether you are competing or not, Julie urges members of the community to come down to the reserve and observe the event.
“There’s so much to look at,” Julie said. “(I encourage people to) come and have a look, especially when they do the flame ceremony… it’s the most emotional experience. It’s a nice feeling because you realise you’re not the only one who has lost someone or who knows that pain.”
For those wanting to make a difference, whether they have been affected by the devastation of cancer or not, Julie maintains that the Relay for Life is a perfect way to start making a change in the world.
“You can always say you want to make a difference, but unless you get out there and actually do something, you’re not really doing anything at all,” Julie said. “It’s such a good cause, and it really is an amazing event to see…it gives a lot of people hope.”
The Cardinia Relay for Life will take place at Pakenham’s Toomuc Reserve on Friday 24 February.
To donate to team Best Foot Forward, visit: http://fundraising.cancer.org.au